What Constitutes Value?

Before reading, take this Short Survey

(Also, given how many people are reading things into this article that aren't there, I ask that you actually carefully read my words, not jump to conclusions about what I do or don't think that are not present in the words I write here. Note that this is an article mostly about perceptions. Many people posting in forums about this article appear to have pre-conceived perceptions about me that are getting in the way of their actually reading what I wrote. I did not, for example, write that DSLRs are better than mirrorless. Indeed, if you look at the one personal example I cite, you'll see that I personally chose mirrorless over DSLR.) 

In considering why mirrorless sales flattened, we have to consider a lot of things. Certainly the state of the world economy is affecting camera sales in general. But I think one key aspect of the "mirrorless stall" has to be the perception of value. 

Mirrorless is wedged in between compact cameras and DSLRs. Smartphones are pushing compacts upward while DSLRs have always been a fairly low bar above, with the entry point being US$600 for a competent DSLR for a very long period of time now. 

So let's deal with some perceptions for a moment:

  • Mirrorless doesn't focus as fast as DSLRs.
  • Mirrorless has sub-optimal EVF versus full on optical viewfinders in DSLRs.
  • Mirrorless consumes battery power faster than DSLRs.
  • Mirrorless cameras cost as much as DSLRs.
  • The overall mirrorless package size (camera and lens) only decreases significantly if the sensor size decreases and you give up DOF isolation.

All of these things are both true and false. There is some truth in each of these perception statements, some falsity. For the most part, the only thing I see mirrorless marketing campaigns trying to address—often with some level of deception—is the focus performance. Olympus likes to issue press releases that claim "world's fastest focusing camera," for example. 

Frankly, I don't think trying to market your way with a bit of deception is useful in the long run. When you get caught out in the lie or someone reads the footnote carefully, they don't believe anything you claim about your camera. The truth of the matter is that the focus speed claims tend to be attempts to win over compact camera users, not DSLR users. So, while often true—mirrorless camera X does focus faster than the compact camera Y—we're still in that narrow gap between compacts and DSLRs.

A Comparison

I actually started this article on a different tack, and had written quite a bit of it before I realized that I, too, had fallen for some perception versus reality distortions. I started the article over when I discovered that, but let me take you to a key point in my analysis: an Olympus E-M5 OM-D versus a Nikon D7000. 

What are the differences between those two? What are the real things you give up and the things you gain? Well, both are 16mp cameras, though the Olympus is getting there with a slightly smaller sensor and giving up a bit of dynamic range because of that (technically, they share sensor technology, as they're both Sony EXMORs of the same generation, so it's only the size and gain tuning that changes performance). When these two cameras were selling side by side, the mirrorless Olympus was US$1000, the Nikon DSLR at US$1200. 

The Olympus is significantly smaller and lighter. The Nikon has better continuous focus performance. The Olympus has poor battery performance compared to the Nikon. We can argue over almost everything else, but both cameras are pretty complete, high-end consumer products with a deep and wide feature set, and some people will favor the EVF over the OVF and vice versa. 

So what was the real value proposition here? For US$200 less you got a much smaller, lighter camera that struggled with continuous autofocus and battery life. That's it basically. Put the other way: for US$200 more you could get a larger, heavier camera with near pro level continuous focus and longer battery life. 

For the work I do with a crop sensor camera (mostly long hikes in backcountry where weight is an issue, taking landscape shots), the focus difference isn't meaningful but the smaller/lighter difference is. I might even have paid more for that, but getting it for less was fine, I could just apply that to buying more batteries, taking one of the negatives out of the equation. 

The Problem

The problem, of course, is that most people are comparing apples to oranges when they come up with their mirrorless versus DSLR perceptions. For example, the recently introduced 16mp Panasonic GF6 mirrorless camera is US$600 with kit lens, while the 24mp Nikon D3200 DSLR is US$550 at the moment. The Panasonic may be much smaller and lighter, but it has fewer pixels, a smaller sensor, no viewfinder, shorter battery life, worse continuous focus performance, and more. 

That's the problem mirrorless is having vis-a-vis DSLRs: a lower specification product is priced equal to or higher than the higher specified one. Nikon themselves really botch this big time. A 14mp Nikon V2 kit is US$800 at the moment, the same as a 24mp Nikon D5200 kit. This distorts the whole equation dramatically: same money for less performance at the sensor, fewer features, worse battery life, a lowish end EVF, though it is indeed smaller and lighter. 

At the other end of the spectrum we have high-end compact cameras. The Sony RX-100 is a good comparison against the Nikon J3, for example: the RX-100 is smaller and lighter with a faster lens for US$100 more than the mirrorless Nikon. The Nikon wins the focus contest, but loses most of the other comparisons, including the critical smaller and lighter one.

The danger is that the gap is getting smaller between top compact and bottom DSLR. In particular, we have large sensor compacts (Canon G1x, Leica X2, Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, Sigma DP1/2/3, Sony RX-100) and we have highly competent smaller sensor compacts (Canon G15, Fujifilm X20, Nikon Coolpix P330/P7700, etc.). In particular, the Sony RX-100 and Fujifilm X20 are nipping at the heels of the low-end mirrorless cameras, subbing a fixed zoom lens for an interchangeable lens, but still providing highly competent image quality. And of course the low-end DSLRs are still eclipsing the mirrorless cameras on many performance issues. It's a small gap the mirrorless cameras are trying to get traction in now. Really small.

Now look at prices: U$650 for the RX-100. Wait a second, the GF6 is US$600 and the D3200 is US$550. Larger here equals cheaper. But larger in this example also equals better performance. See the problem that mirrorless makers have put themselves into? They're trying to squeeze something into a very small marketing space.

This is one of the reasons why when you look at the actual consumer retail purchases of mirrorless, you find something dramatic: discounted past generation mirrorless sells decently, brand new mirrorless at full price tends to sit on shelves.

What sticks out to me is that the marketing departments aren't properly getting the value message right. If a GF6 deserves to be sold at a price just between the RX-100 and D3200, why would that be? Certainly I don't see Panasonic making a really strong value proposition case. The lead headline they use on their Web site is "The Smartphone Linked Social Media Camera." Their "highlights" of the camera are: "Sophisticated Design," "One-Touch Connection and Picture Sharing with NFC," "Creative Control," "Full-HD Video Recording in AVCHD and MP4," and "Self Shot with approx. 180° Tiltable Monitor." See any value propositions in those statements? Heck, see anything important that you couldn't say about a Sony NEX or Canon G1x? (Yeah, the G1x can't connect with the smartphone.)

The problem is that the camera companies are basically running the same marketing messages for most of their products, and most of them are running the same messages as their competitors. Every camera does HD video now. Every camera is sophisticated design. All cameras have "creative control." Many cameras have the ability to tilt or swivel the LCD. The messages are all cookie cutter and do nothing to help the consumer chose the right product for their needs. As a user, I'm left with having to sort through the specifications, try using the darned thing to see if and how it gets in my way, and figuring out if it solves a problem I have. The marketing helps me not. 

As a result, we're seeing a lot of "churn" in the camera business. The camera makers are actually selling more product than they probably would if the products and marketing were clearly set out to consumers. 

I'm use a case example of my own. When Olympus put out the original E-P1, their marketing was targeted towards it being the perfect social camera (blogging, etc.). It wasn't. Moreover, the reason I bought it was to test a hypothesis: that I could carry far less weight in gear on long backcountry hikes and come back with "good enough" photos. I was comparing the E-P1 against the D300, and both were 12mp. But one made for a really lightweight kit, the other burdened me with a lot of weight. I was even able to use a smaller, lighter tripod with the Olympus.

For me, the value was that I could accomplish pretty much the same thing with 10 pounds less gear. 

The Value Proposition (Caution: Sarcasm Ahead)

So what is the value that the mirrorless manufactures are offering customers? And does that match your perception? 

With tongue firmly in cheek, here are my value propositions as currently practiced:

  • Canon — Dink around with your DSLR lenses on a smaller body that focuses slower. At least you don't have to use manual adapters on some other camera.
  • Fujifilm — Just shoot the way you would 50 years ago. Sorry about the artifacts. 
  • Leica — Just shoot the way you would 70 years ago. Sorry we had to raise prices.
  • Nikon — DSLR focus performance, compact camera design. See, they don't match.
  • Olympus — We finally figured out that small was what we did best. Sorry about the menus.
  • Panasonic — Olympus seems to know what they're doing. Videographers like the GH3.
  • Pentax — We haven't figured it out, but aren't these designs different?
  • Samsung — Hmm, we copied Sony NEX (leaving out only the E), but that didn't seem to work.
  • Sony — We can do small, too. Why does that sell better than our DSLRs?

Now while that was sarcasm, the mirrorless camera I use most actually is for the reason stated: the Olympus OM-D EM-5, because it's essentially a smaller DSLR. Indeed, Olympus so far has done small best for me. 

Curious, I went to the Olympus Web site to see what their marketing message is for the OM-D EM-5. Top line: "The Beginning of the New." Biggest heading: "Powerful Portability and Rugged Durability." Hmm, that last one almost gets it. I would have said "Rugged and Small, with DSLR-like Performance." Stated that way, it would be a marketing message that gets across the clear value proposition to me. 

But I can't quite let Olympus off the hook here. If you select Pen/OM-D via the menu system on their Web site, you get a page that says the following: "The OM-D is a groundbreaking, new digital interchangeable lens camera perfect for people who want to 'take part', 'create', and 'share'." Oh dear, that's the the original Pen marketing all over again. And it says nothing that distances the OM-D EM-5 from all the other cameras that allow you to create and share these days. 

So a message to the mirrorless makers: if you want to sell more cameras, tell us why we should value them over any others. All the overlap in the camera lineups is causing overlap in messages to the point where there aren't any clear, informative messages to potential buyers any more. That leaves them considering something they always consider—price—and their pre-conceived perceptions. Because those perceptions don't make the selling case over DSLRs, the fact that the low-end DSLRs are lower in price than all the current mirrorless models means people buy the DSLR.


Final Thoughts

You're in one of two groups, and I would suggest that you do a little test of your thinking to understand what I'm trying to say here:

  • You already own a mirrorless camera. Simple question: why? What was the thing that sold you on it over all the alternatives? 
  • You don't yet own a mirrorless camera. Another simple question: why not? What is it that a mirrorless camera would need to do to win you over?

I'm genuinely interested in your answers. That's why if you haven't already done so, I ask that you take this short survey to tell me what you think about mirrorless value. 

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